Balela (Ba-lee-la) salad is a Mediterranean dish. The word “Balela” in Arabic means “cooked chickpeas.” It is often categorized as “Middle Eastern” cuisine, although I have always had issues with that term, as traditionally and historically it has included the country of Egypt, which as we all know is located in North Africa. Mainstream historians have always associated Egypt with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern culture instead of continental Africa. I’m more comfortable with this descriptor: Afro-Asiatic. But I digress.
I first learned of this recipe from an Instagram page called The Kemetic Kitchen; the word Kemet, of course, being the ancient term for prehistoric Egypt. Shortly after reading the recipe, I made it, and enjoyed it immensely. That was a few years ago. This is my second outing with Balela salad and, after researching the recipe more thoroughly, I have added a few extra ingredients. This is one of those dishes that is very forgiving; you can give and take on the ingredients as you like, and it will still turn out tasting absolutely delicious. That’s the great thing about cooking at home: it’s your kitchen, your palate, and (like that Burger King commercial from back in the day) you can “have it your way” every single time. Customizing a recipe to your own liking is one of the true joys of standing up in your own kitchen and preparing food.
As always when beginning a recipe, put all your things in place; the French call this mise en place, meaning “putting in place” or “everything in its place.” That means reading through the recipe, line by line, and assembling every ingredient and utensil that you will need – and placing it all out on the countertop before you, just as I’ve done (left). There are a few things missing in this photograph: a chef’s knife, which you’ll see in subsequent pictures; a bench scraper, which is used to collect chopped veggies and herbs, and easily move them into the mixing bowl; and a whisk (shown below), used to mix up the dressing. A bench scraper, most commonly used for moving dough when baking, is a totally optional piece of equipment, but it makes life a lot easier (and tidier!) in the kitchen. Same thing for the whisk, optional, but the more you cook, the more you’ll want to keep one on hand. What is essential, though, is a good cutting board. I’m using a super-strong butcher block these days, but when I first started out in the kitchen, back in the mid-90s, I used a very inexpensive plastic cutting board that you can get at nearly every corner grocery store.
1 (15 0z.) can chickpeas
1 (15 oz.) can black beans
1 cup scallions (about 7 scallions) or red onions
1 ½ cup chopped fresh tomato (4-6 Roma tomatoes) or 1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes
1 cup finely chopped fresh parsley (about 1 healthy bunch, but buy 2, because you can never get enough chlorophyll). A generous sprinkle of dried parsley will do, if you don’t have fresh parsley. I keep a jar of dried parsley in the spice cabinet, because I like a sprinkle in my scrambled eggs.
¼ cup finely chopped mint leaves (or a good sprinkle of dried mint is just fine!)
1 English cucumber (the ones vacuum-packed in plastic!)
1 yellow, red, orange or green Bell pepper
½ Jalapeno pepper, if you like things spicy – and I do!
1 cup pitted Greek Kalamata olives
½ cup Sundried Tomatoes (julienned and jarred in oil – see photo below!)
Feta cheese (as much as you like or none at all, if you don’t eat cheese). I love feta cheese; it’s probably my favorite cheese, and I add it to lots of dishes. If you are using feta, buy the block of cheese, and not the crumbles, as they tend to taste like sawdust.
Toasted Pine Nuts (as much as you like or none at all). These add a very nice depth and texture to the salad.
3 tablespoons (tbsp.) freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tbsp. Balsamic (or red wine) vinegar
finely minced fresh garlic (to your taste; I use 2-3 cloves)
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
½ teaspoon (tsp.) salt (I use coarse Kosher salt)
freshly-ground black pepper (to your taste)
½ tsp. Sumac
(this is the only specialty ingredient and the salad still tastes great without it! I get mine from Amazon.)
Cayenne Pepper (if you dare – and I do!). About ¼ tsp. or so will do you just fine, if using.
Prepping ingredients is, sometimes, more time-consuming than anything else, when cooking. Rinse all your vegetables and herbs under cold running water and wrap them in paper towels (or in a clean kitchen cloth) to dry.
Using a can opener, remove the beans from their tins, pour into a colander, and rinse under cold water.
Let the rinsed beans drain (thoroughly) in a colander while you prepare the other ingredients.
While the beans are draining, chop the scallions and add them to a large mixing bowl. The knife I’m using is a cleaver and I like using this knife because of its wide surface; it can be used to scrape under the cut veggies, to lift them up, and place them into the mixing bowl, just like you would do with a bench scraper.
Chop the tomatoes and add them to the same large mixing bowl.
Chop the parsley and add it to the same large mixing bowl.
Here, I am using a Mezzaluna “half-moon” knife, which is very good for finely dicing large quantities of vegetables and herbs.
If using fresh mint, finely chop it, just as with the parsley, and add it to the mixing bowl. The fresh mint I ordered for this salad arrived black and wilted, so instead I sprinkled in some dried mint.
Remove the plastic from the cucumber, if using the English variety. Place the whole cucumber on the cutting board in a horizontal position. Slice the whole cucumber in half. Then, cut each half, lengthwise. You should end up with four pieces (right).
Using a spoon, scoop out the insides of the cucumber, which contains mostly seeds, that I find indigestible. This is an optional step, but one I always do when it comes to cucumbers, which is one of my favorite fruits.
Chop the cucumber and add it to the same mixing bowl with the other ingredients.
Chop the yellow, red, orange or green Bell pepper, and add it to the same large mixing bowl.
For this salad, I used a yellow pepper.
Finely chop the Jalapeno pepper and add it to the same mixing bowl with the other ingredients.
Chop the pitted Greek Kalamata olives and add them to the same mixing bowl.
Chop the sun-dried tomatoes and add them to the bowl. The kind I use are already julienned (sliced into matchsticks) in the jar, so I just drain them and throw them straight into the bowl.
To toast the pine nuts, put them in a small saucepan on medium heat. When you start to smell them, shake the pan, moving the nuts around, so that they toast on all sides. Whatever you do, don’t walk away from the pan, as this process only takes a few minutes, and I have burned many nuts on the stovetop in my day. Throw the toasted pine nuts into the mixing bowl.
Chop the feta cheese into bite-size chunks and throw it into the same large mixing bowl with all of the other ingredients.
Pour the well-drained beans on top of all the other ingredients in the same large mixing bowl.
Whisk together the dressing ingredients and pour over the bean-herb mixture.
Stir together, just enough to combine and coat all the ingredients with the dressing.
I usually don’t use all of the dressing. I pour over just enough to coat the ingredients until the salad glistens. Sometimes, the salad takes all the dressing at once, and sometimes it does not. If I do have dressing remaining, I put a piece of plastic wrap over the cup containing the dressing, and let it rest in the fridge till serving, so that I have it to add to leftover portions of the salad, if needed.
Let the finished Balela salad stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes, preferably in the fridge overnight, as it will taste even better the next day, after all the flavors marry up together. Just bring it back to room temperature before serving.
Adjust (salt and pepper) seasonings, to your taste, just before serving, if necessary. Serve and enjoy.